Aimar Ventsel: Georgia is more than khinkalis

Aimar Ventsel.
Aimar Ventsel. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Estonians' knowledge of Georgia is usually limited to food and drink. But considering Georgians' positive attitude towards Estonians, it would only be polite to brush up on the country's social and political character. There would be fewer surprises, Aimar Ventsel finds in Vikkerraadio's daily comment.

Estonia is evidently the place with the most Georgia-experts per square meter. The tourism season is off to an early start, and every time I open Facebook, I am greeter by images of an acquaintance, sitting at table in a mountain village that is laden with the best foods and a decanter of home-made wine in the middle.

You would be hard-pressed to find an Estonian who cannot advise you in terms of which Kutaisi, Tbilisi or Batumi cellar bar offers the world's tastiest khinkalis or shashlik. This will be accompanied by an account of just how close the patron is to the owner who rushes to get their best stuff as soon as they see the former before breaking into a display of exuberant hospitality. And then there's chacha. Estonians are virtual chacha experts, with the "well-kept secret" of where the best stuff is sold considered an inseparable part of in-depth knowledge of Georgia. For example, you go to the market in Batumi, take the third entrance, and in the middle of the second row there's an old man with a hook nose. Walk up to him and tell him Priit from Keava sends his regards. And the old man will sell you the world's best chacha.

However, leaving aside food and drink-related know-how, people in Estonia know relatively little about Georgia. That is the reason the country keeps surprising us. For example, when Estonian newspaper started running stories about protests against the so-called Russia law in Tbilisi and Batumi.

The Georgian society is very diverse and multifaceted, full of controversies. When Mikheil Saakashvili was elected president in 2004, he launched a process to turn Georgia into a European and Western country. But Saakashvili's methods were controversial and downright dictatorial during the end of his term (a paradox where an autocratic ruler employed totalitarian means in an attempt to build democracy).

Saakashvili, or Misha, as he is known in Georgia, westernized the country's universities, sending students to USA and Europe, and brought Western tourists to Georgia. At the same time, he reorganized the Georgian economy by employing relatively brutal measures, and his policy toward the country's numerous ethnic minorities was discriminative and assimilative. All of it worked to split society. Next to non-ethnic Georgians, those for whom Europeanness clashed with traditional values also felt violated.

One interesting divide exists in attitudes toward Russia. Saakashvili attempted to dislodge Georgia from Russia. But, paradoxically, a part of Georgian society sports a very positive attitude toward the latter. A lot of Georgians go to work in Russia, which counts for a lot in a country suffering from chronic unemployment. And so, for many in Georgia, Russia is the embodiment of El Dorado, a place of good salaries and a market capable of buying all Georgian exports. Which it is, by the way. Russia is also considered a bastion of traditional non-European values. And finally – Georgia is rank with Soviet nostalgia, longing for a time when everyone had work and sufficient income. This group sees the 2008 war not as between Russia and Georgia, but as a disagreement between Saakashvili and Putin, which the latter is often blamed for starting.

Georgia, and especially cities like Tbilisi or Batumi, have come a long way in recent years. Georgia is an attractive startup location and sports an active network of Western NGOs. The modern art scene is bustling, next to cool electronic music clubs. Environmentalism is gaining ground. But it also has a lot of people for whom these Western impulses constitute erosion of traditional Georgian values. Tolerance and rights of sexual minorities clash with the patriarchal and conservative nature of Georgian society. Adding to the mix economic ties – the lion's share of Georgia's economic elite has amassed its wealth in Russia, every Russian boycott of Georgian wines and mineral water has hit the country hard, Russian tourists are an important source of income, and Russians have been actively buying up real estate in Georgia for years. What we are left with is a society a part of which admires Russia, while the other part sports a very negative attitude.

For some reason, Estonians are valued in Georgia. I have never understood the reason, while I have personally experienced the so-called Estonian bonus on numerous occasions. Cases where I have been offered a discount or help upon the other side learning I'm from Estonia. To return the favor, and as a sign of courtesy, it would be polite to know a little more about Georgia than which cellar bar in Tbilisi sells the world's best khinkalis.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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